Love it or hate it, The Blair Witch Project was one of the defining horror films of the '90s. The film practically pioneered the "shaky-cam found-footage" narrative, while creating a genuine sense of dread, all on a shoestring budget with basically no special effects. While the movie isn't to everyone's taste, there's really nothing else like it.
Conversely, there are a lot of other games like Blair Witch from Bloober Team ($30, PC and Xbox One). Ever since Blair Witch's surprise reveal at the E3 2019 Xbox press conference, fans have been eager to learn a little more about this first-person psychological horror game inspired by the cult classic film.
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Blair Witch will debut on Aug. 30, but I had the opportunity to check it out a few weeks early. During my half-hour play-through, I got a look at five different slices of gameplay, from my first steps into the Black Hills Forest to my exploration of the famous Blair Witch house itself.
Curse of the Blair Witch
The game plays fine, for the most part. But the premise and gameplay hardly scream, "Blair Witch Project." In fact, they feel an awful lot more like any number of psychological horror games from the last few years. Stop me if you've heard this one before: A boy goes missing in the woods, and an off-duty police officer named Ellis decides to track down the child himself. Ellis and his trusty dog, Bullet, take a flashlight and a camcorder into the Black Hills Forest, but strange creatures that hate the light lurk therein.
Oh, and Ellis has a dark past, which will come back to haunt him, both metaphorically and literally, as the game progresses.
The setup here channels everything from Silent Hill to Alan Wake. I don't want to poke too much fun here, as this is not a terrible premise. But consider the story of the first Blair Witch film (and, coincidentally, the only entry in the multimedia franchise with near-universal praise from fans and critics). You'll see no missing child, no specialized law enforcer, no flashlight combat and no tragic backstories. This story's about three amateur filmmakers who set off into the woods simply because there's something interesting to learn there. There's no secondary motivation; the Blair Witch itself is reason enough to go exploring.
In other words, there's no particular reason why the Blair Witch game has to draw upon the Blair Witch mythos, at least not based on the demo.
If you can live with that, though, the game itself doesn't seem so bad. Based on my demo, it seems like you'll mainly be doing three things: exploring the woods, solving simple environmental puzzles and using your flashlight (and your dog) to scare off shadowy creatures that periodically attack you.
Lights, shadows, action
Of the three activities, simply walking around and taking in your surroundings was my favorite. There's an absolutely beautiful scene right near the beginning of the game in which you follow a small trail out of a parking lot and into the woods for the first time. Almost immediately, the world darkens around you and the sound becomes muted as the trees close in.
I turned back toward the parking lot, and it already seemed impossibly far away. I remembered how frightening it was when the characters in the first film realized they were lost in the woods — and the woods did not particularly care whether they made it out. My momentary pause in the game was perfectly organic and unscripted, and it reminded me of everything that made The Blair Witch Project resonate with audiences.
The game's puzzles are fine, although the way they incorporate the camcorder feels a little forced. During my demo, I came upon an abandoned sawmill that, after a little investigation, didn't seem quite so abandoned after all. A locked door impeded my progress, and to find the lock's combination, I had to investigate another building. I came across a videotape of a man making his way through the compound, opening doors as he went. As long as I watched the corresponding segment in the proper area, the door in question would also open up for me.
According to the devs, "It just wouldn't be Blair Witch without a camcorder." Perhaps, but the camcorder in the film is the lens through which we see the whole game; here, it's just another tool to make your way past arbitrary roadblocks.
Then, there's the flashlight combat, which is perhaps the most out-of-place element in the game. I get that video games without combat elements often struggle to find a central mechanic on which to hang the gameplay. However, following your dog's barks to pinpoint willowy shadow creatures, then hitting them with a flashlight beam until they disappear, feels like it wandered in from another franchise. This part of the game's not that interesting, but at least these sections seem fairly short.
Bloober Team's approach
The highlight of the demo was the final section, in which I got to explore the iconic Blair Witch house. (Like the Doctor's TARDIS, it's much bigger on the inside.) I followed its winding, labyrinthine passageways just to find myself traveling in circles, all while strange sounds assaulted my ears and my flashlight guttered out. That was fantastic — and then a big monster crashed through a windowpane before suddenly disappearing, and I couldn't help but resent the jump scare. The atmosphere had been really gripping for a few minutes.
And yet, for gamers who have played Bloober Team's previous games, the gameplay pattern may seem familiar. The Layers of Fear series and Observer are also psychological horror games, in which a lot of the experience involves simply getting from one place to another and soaking in the scenery. Bloober Team's games are light on combat and heavy on ambience, and Blair Witch is no exception.
I'm torn on whether Blair Witch will scratch an itch that series fans have had since 1999. There have been three Blair Witch games already, but they generally weren't very good; this could be gamers' first chance to really explore the Black Hills Forest and experience the same kind of horror as the film's protagonists encountered. But this title is also shackled to a much more traditional horror game narrative with some very weird mechanical choices.
Either way, at least you'll get a chance to pet a very cute German shepherd.